by Tony Wyman
When President Trump told the world that any further threatening acts by North Korea would be met by “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” he backed himself into a corner from which he has no escape without either losing credibility or engaging in a war that the American people don’t want to fight.
The North Koreans, recognizing President Trump’s blunder, immediately responded with detailed plans to launch four missiles over Japan to strike American military bases in Guam, a U.S. territory.
“As already clarified, the Strategic Force of the KPA is seriously examining the plan for an enveloping strike at Guam through simultaneous fire of four Hwasong-12 intermediate-range strategic ballistic rockets in order to interdict the enemy forces on the major military bases on Guam and to Signal a crucial warning to the US,” the North Koreans replied in a statement attributed to Gen. Kim Rak Gyom.
The statement goes further, insulting the American president, suggesting he is “senile” and “bereft of reason,” stating that “only absolute force can work on him.”
President Trump’s response was a to double down on his earlier “fire and fury” threat. “Maybe that statement wasn’t tough enough,’’ he said, standing with Vice-president Pence. ‘‘North Korea better get their act together, or they are going to be in trouble like few nations have ever been in trouble.’’
Chastising North Korea like a parent threatens a misbehaving child – “You do that again, young man, and you are really going to get it!” – may appeal to the president’s base who seem to respond to tough talk, even when no action follows the Mr. Trump’s words, but it is unlikely to have any restraining effect on Pyongyang.
If the war of words between the two countries escalates to the point where the U.S. feels it is necessary to take further action, what are the options the country has and how effective might they be?
Limited conventional attacks with B-1 bombers and cruise missiles on North Korea’s nuclear weapons sites, missile launchers and development centers would have little chance of knocking out the country’s capabilities.
President Clinton considered this option when he was in the White House and backed off when it was apparent the strikes wouldn’t result in the end of the North’s nuclear program and could spark an all-out war between us, South Korea and Pyongyang.
Today, more of North Korea’s launchers are mobile, making them very hard to locate and destroy.
Since we wouldn’t be able to completely neutralize North Korea’s artillery and tank forces with a first strike, it is likely the enemy would respond with an invasion of South Korea, dealing heavy casualties to civilians and destroying large parts of the capitol, Seoul.
Limited nuclear attacks, like the one President Trump seemed to threaten, would have a similar level of success as conventional efforts, but would also cause outrage around the world as allies and foes alike condemn the first use of nuclear weapons since World War II.
China, who just this morning said they would remain neutral in a war between the U.S. and North Korea, would, undoubtedly enter the fray on the side of their allies, not only making the military situation on the ground extremely dangerous, but also sending the world economy into a tailspin as Chinese business and financial relationships with the United States collapse.
In addition, South Korea would attempt to veto such a strike against their northern neighbor and might even leave the alliance with the U.S. should America go ahead with the strike against their wishes. If they didn’t abandon the U.S. alliance, unrest in their country, as Koreans protested against America’s use of nuclear weapons against fellow Koreans, would threaten the stability of the South Korean government and hamper its ability to fight a conventional war against the North.
Responding to a North Korean attack would be a more politically and militarily feasible action, giving the U.S. the cover it needs to escalate its response to one designed to destabilize and topple the current North Korean regime. But even this option has dangers that could leave the Korean Peninsula worse off than it is today.If, for example, North Korea crossed the border, captured Seoul and then sued for peace before the United Nations, could the U.S. continue to press the attack against the North without being seen as the aggressor in the campaign?
Or would North Korea gain political advantage by appealing for a cease fire after making military and political gains that demonstrate its capabilities to withstand American and South Korean combined military and political might?
The reality is the situation in North Korea calls for diplomacy, as unappealing as that might be to chest-thumping hawks. President Trump is right that past administrations failed to prevent Pyongyang from developing nuclear weapons, but that failure doesn’t justify starting a war that we cannot win, at least without causing the deaths of millions of Koreans and the destruction of Seoul and other cities in both the North and South.